On Wednesday night, the Brooklyn Nets will face the Atlanta Hawks on the road, hoping to snag a win to return to what must feel like home by now. They’ve been 2-2, 3-3, 4-4, 5-5, and 6-6. A win will push them to 7-7, sustaining their truly average start to the season. Before a Sunday matinee loss to the Philadelphia 76ers, Brooklyn was 15th in offensive rating and 15th in defensive rating.
As such, the recent takeaways from their film have been mixed. Truly. There’s some good and some bad, and some progress made by individual players, but the shine of a feisty start to the season is wearing off a bit. Brooklyn’s unique mix of early injuries — no season-enders nor surgeries — meant that everybody on the roster has contributed already. Just two or three weeks into the season, that’s a rarity, and it’s bound to keep spirits up.
But, as the Nets now sit at 6-7 as we approach the second month of regular-season ball, it’s time to stack some wins. Here are three takeaways from Brooklyn’s recent play.
Mikal Bridges slowly, steadily improving
Mikal Bridges is going to be just fine, if he isn’t already. Averaging 20/6/4 is one thing, but doing it while making just 31% of his 3-pointers suggests a slight boon to his scoring may be coming soon. The load he’s been asked to carry has decreased, likely for the better, and we’ve seen his off-ball movement rise as a result, relocating into open threes or cutting backdoor for easy looks at the rim. If you were expecting 27 points a night on 50/40/90 splits, I don’t know what to tell you, other than ‘Well, Brooklyn’s offense was quite poor when Bridges had to do everything last season. And that wasn’t his fault.’
But Bridges isn’t regressing just because his numbers and usage are down. Quite the opposite in fact; the offensive creation skills he’s honing behind the scenes are starting to show on the court. Namely, his skip-passing:
That’s a wonderful, tough look to Dorian Finney-Smith for three, and a read Bridges doesn’t make last season. Skip-passing (from one side of the floor to the other wing/corner) is not the be-all, end-all for ball-handlers. The skill becomes more common every season, and defenses are now much more equipped to guard it than when LeBron James started wrecking Tom Thibodeau’s overload-heavy schemes with skips about a decade ago.
Still, it’s certainly a plus for ball-handlers to have that pass in their bag, and Bridges is clearly keeping an eye toward the opposite side of the floor on his drives. (Which are abundant, of course. It’s not like he’s reverted back to Phoenix-level usage.)
There are two clear next steps for Bridges to build off this skill, and based on what we've seen so far, there’s little reason to doubt they’ll happen. The first is simply improving his deliveries. Maybe that’s more proper jump-stops on his drives, establishing a stronger base to either jump off or pivot out of— his two-foot leaps can be a little weak at times. Maybe it’s just practicing these skips. Right now, a lot of them float through the air without much zip, allow defenders to recover to the intended target:
Every millisecond counts.
The other step for Bridges, and certainly the more difficult and crucial one, is to now leverage these passes into higher-level reads on the interior. This is asking a lot of a 27-year-old who’s been a “ball-handler” for eight months. But Bridges has handled everything on his plate so far, and these skip passes represent tangible progress.
You can already see teams adjusting their scouting, sometimes mid-game, of Bridges and his newfound ability. Look at Magic rookie Anthony Black on this one, the defender who “tags” Nic Claxton’s roll to the rim, then closes out to Cam Johnson in the corner:
Black knows Bridges isn’t throwing that alley-oop, and is recovering to the weak-side corner as soon as Bridges’ dribble ends. I’d love to see Bridges throw this one to the rim, or even try to move Black with his eyes. What’s the rookie going to do to bother the 6’11” Claxton on the finish, other than foul him? Once Bridges starts making some more high-level, interior reads, he and the Nets will really be cooking.
When Bridges misses his starting center just outside the restricted area like this...
...you can tell that his focus, imprinted by his coaching staff, is seeing the opposite side of the floor. A fine focus, to be sure, and he’s accomplishing it. Now, we’ll be looking for Bridges to see the whole floor.
One Trendon Watford Gripe
If anybody’s earned the right to critique Trendon Watford, whose 106 minutes to start the season have been impressive by any definition, it is I. I spent guest columns during the preseason discussing what Watford could bring to Brooklyn, delighted by the signing of a player with such funk.
I didn’t expect Watford to crack the rotation in a meaningful way so early in the season, but alas, injuries give and take. He’s largely done what longtime fans of his game expect from him by pushing the pace after rebounds, operating as sort of a point-forward, moving his feet well on the perimeter but not exactly as a rim-protector, and of course, hitting floaters.
Boy, Watford loves that floater. Per Basketball Reference, he is a career 52% shooter between 3-and-10 feet, an excellent mark for any player, and certainly for 6’8” dude that can get that shot off anytime.
That mark also illustrates why two-point shots that aren’t layups and dunks are less valuable. 52% from floater-range, a great number, is 1.04 points-per-shot, or, equivalent to shooting just under 35% from three, worse than league average. And yes, that’s incredibly reductive in many cases...but not on plays like this, which we’ve seen from Watford this season:
On an otherwise excellent drive, he misses Royce O’Neale, shooting 38% from deep this season, on the wing. Given the highlight passes Watford has already made this season...
at least we're getting some point Watford moments today: pic.twitter.com/yuPALBfLRl— Lucas Kaplan (@LucasKaplan_) November 19, 2023
...we know he can see the floor. I don’t want Watford to tone down the aggression; in fact, his combination of size, vision, and yes, that touch means he should be attacking the paint frequently. But turn a couple of those floaters into kick-outs, we know you can.
The Turnover Problem
A turnover problem often is a function of a team’s offense. But not for the Brooklyn Nets. Though their 15 giveaways against the Philadelphia 76ers were problematic, they are 16th in turnover-rate on the young season, squarely in middle of the pack. That’s not killing them.
They’re just not taking the rock from their opponents, dead last in the NBA in steals, even with Jacque Vaughn imploring his players to take chances at every opportunity: “We’ve really taken the most risk as a team, or put our guys in a position schematically to take risks. It’s really just getting our guys comfortable with the result.”
Said Watford: “[Vaughn] is heavy, you know — that’s one of his biggest emphases: Attack the ball, and try to get steals, and try to get deflections. Even if it puts you out of position, it’s still about the point of aggression.”
And Vaughn isn’t lying. He does put his guys in risky positions, namely all the way in passing lanes in the middle of the court. Here’s the strategy working as intended, as Watford plays way off his man on the wing, forcing a turnover that results in a transition layup:
Too often, though, crowding the middle of the floor creates simple decisions for opponents, and forces long closeouts for Brooklyn’s defenders:
Cam Johnson is unable to get a hand on that pass, and while he flies by Duncan Robinson, he’s in a tough position to begin with, in a full sprint toward a bonafide sniper. It’d be one thing if Brooklyn was forcing turnovers at an acceptable rate, but they aren’t. Considering Vaughn’s emphasis on stealing the ball and getting out in transition, the Nets are likely eyeing a top-ten finish in takeaways. Again, they’re dead last right now, behind plenty of teams content to play much more conservative schemes, afraid to get out of position.
It is the reason the Nets are “not being rewarded for...how good we’re rebounding and not fouling,” per the head coach, who went on to say, “we’ll continue to try to come up with concepts to push our guys in that direction.”
One thing Brooklyn hasn’t tried? The oldest, most aggressive defense in the book: trapping the pick-and-roll. This is likely because it is the most harmful coverage for defensive rebounding, voluntarily sending two defenders, often including the center, to the lever of the pick-and-roll. Given how ball-handlers can shoot today, that may be 35 feet from the rim.
Long before Vaughn was preaching the importance of forcing turnovers, he was focused on rebounding at an acceptable level. Thus, drop coverage was the preseason’s biggest emphasis, which the Nets are still playing today, merely enhanced (or weakened) by their aggressive help defense.
Vaughn has a choice to make. How much longer will he allow his current defensive alignments to fail at forcing turnovers? At this rate, it could be all season. Brooklyn’s defensive rebounding percentage is the third-highest in the league, an astounding rank given their thin roster. It’s reasonable to ask for more traditionally aggressive coverages, including trapping the pick-and-roll. Given how much Vaughn discusses the Brooklyn’s need for more steals, it’d certainly make sense. But is it worth it?
The Brooklyn Nets visit the Atlanta Hawks on Wednesday night, then return to the Barclays Center for five straight, starting with Saturday vs. the Miami Heat. So we’ll get our answers to all of the above. Brooklyn’s season so far has been, in a word, average. It follows suit that their film is much the same.